William J. Robertson Nature Preserve connects locals to the outdoors

The view from atop “Mount Rittman” overlooking the entire reserve. The Lab is the red building in the foreground. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Logan.
Jonathan Logan, Science Editor

Mayor William Robertson, Jim Trogdon of Rittman, Ohio, and I, Jonathan Davis Logan, drive up to the water’s edge in a new electric golf cart. We stand on the shore of one of 13 ponds that cover the roughly 200-acre area now known as the William J. Robertson Nature Preserve. Just off to the west, the Morton Salt plant shadows the tree line. In 2018, Rittman, a city that straddles Portage and Wayne County northeast of Wooster, received a $2.6 million grant through the Clean Ohio Conservation Fund to restore the 200-acre brownfield land. A brownfield is any plot of land that was previously developed. Restoration of these sites has attracted funding and sparked pockets of environmental enthusiasm all across the United States in recent years. In the case of Rittman’s newest nature preserve, the land was once owned by a paper company that pumped excess pulp into the 13 ponds. Now, under supervision from Ohio’s Division of Wildlife and thanks to water quality monitoring, local residents can be seen enjoying the largest of the ponds via kayaks, canoes or paddleboards.

Mayor Robertson gestures around at the new gravel parking lot and a trail that loops into dense Ohio verdure to our right while elaborating on the two-and-a-half-year process of allocating the Clean Ohio funds to trail-clearing and other infrastructure projects such as the kayak launch jutting out into the water just before us. Long before the preserve opened in the fall of 2021, an army of hundreds of volunteers began the arduous task of establishing over seven miles of rustic and gravel hiking trails. Phragmites, an invasive aquatic reed, dominated the land once. Since 2018, with the help of volunteers, they have managed to wrest some control back from the invasive species and local wildlife is slowly but surely reclaiming the shores of each pond – some with varying degrees of success.

“The Lab” renovation progress. Mayor Robertson and Mr. Trogdon hope to turn it into an education center for all ages. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Logan.

The trails snake around and between the ponds like little levees rising above inundated rice fields. Mr. Trogdon, a graduate of the University of Akron and middle school science teacher, gazes around with a smile etched onto his face while pointing out boneset, a flower popular among monarch butterflies, or talking about one of 136 different species of birds that have been identified at the preserve; among them are a nesting pair of bald eagles and osprey. Robertson added his own ornithological observation on the trumpeter swans as they come into view on our left: “They’re a riot when they take off, their wings are eight feet. So, you can hear them fly up, then they start running on the water, and then they’re yelling the whole time too. It’s a real production.” After a short moment of silence where we were all taking in a different aspect of the biodiversity before us, Mayor Robertson, who graduated from Baldwin Wallace University, would point out each new trail dedicated to various local groups that had volunteered their time or money.

While the greens and reds and blues or yellows of a sulphur butterfly blurred by, I became fascinated by the ever-divisible complexity of nature, perplexed by the fact that I was actually in Ohio. There seemed to be a shared understanding between the three of us: we had all been missing something right beneath our noses for a long time. Following this train of thought, I asked the both of them what they would say to a room full of Wooster students about this place and engaging with the outdoors. Mr. Trogdon: “You guys are the last in your generation that can turn things around, in terms of climate change – we have to get young people involved.” Mayor Robertson echoed this sentiment, saying “appreciate what a group of people working towards a common goal can accomplish.”

Photo courtesy of Jonathan Logan.

After passing a few smaller ponds and turning south towards Mount Rittman, we stopped at a red building that was about halfway renovated. It was once a dilapidated building that allegedly housed an old transformer – along with many rodents. Morton Salt agreed to fund the total renovation of the building, which, when finished, will be a lab dedicated to educating K-12 students as well as any other groups interested in conducting scientific research on the ecosystem.

After driving atop Mount Rittman and taking in the view of the entire preserve, we drove back around smaller ponds where a family was catching butterflies and a flock of Canada Geese had joined the Trumpeter Swans. In the future, Mayor Robertson and Mr. Trogdon hope that the nature preserve will continue to engage and educate young minds. 

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